Notes from the Reference Desk
The last few issues of this newsletter have been somewhat more technical than some of you prefer. So this time I'm going to give you a break and talk about something a little less obscure than X.500's reincarnation as an Internet standard. Instead, I'd like to share with you a list of on-line information resources that I've found to be useful.
Before news becomes "News!," it starts off as a press release. If you really want unfiltered access to everything that's happening in the high-tech community, sign up to some of the wire services. It's amazing how much information you can get. Note that these services can easily become overwhelming drains on your time. Among my favorites:
- Business Wire: This is the mother lode for press releases. They are the single largest provider of releases that I am familiar with. Every day they categorize releases by market segment and event (management changes, product releases, etc.), and then create a list of cross-linked headlines. You can either read the headlines on their web site, or subscribe to an e-mail distribution service that will send the headlines to you. For just a couple of segments, the mailings can be between 30 and 60k (and that's just headlines!). Go to http://about.businesswire.com/membapp.shtml to register.
- PR Newswire: PR Newswire is another comprehensive press release service, although it only carries about half of the releases that Business Wire runs. PR Newswire is also categorized by segment, but not by event. If you don't have the time to digest Business Wire but still want to see the raw news releases, this is a good service to start with. You can scan the latest in technology news at http://www.prnewswire.com/tech/newstechnology.html.
- Internet Wire: Internet Wire is a very-small alternative to both of the above, providing only a handful of special-interest headlines on a daily basis. However, this service is free to the general public. Subscribe at http://www.internetwire.com/subscribe/enduser/.
- NEWSdesk: This one comes from Europe, and as such provides a lot of interesting information about what's happening over-the-pond. For example, product pricing is sometimes given in DM instead of USD, and product features are sometimes different. It's interesting to read if you're a news junkie, but is only available to the working press and analyst community.
The purpose of the technical press is not to report on every little thing that happens, but instead to report on the things that are interesting to the subscription base' profile. This is why networking magazines don't review hand-held scanners (so stop asking!). These filters are supposed to work in the reader's favor, giving better views on the news than the press releases alone could (or dare would) provide. Another function provided by publications is to get quotes from customers and competitors, explain the significance of the event, and otherwise attempt to turn fluff into substance.
Some on-line news sources do this really well. Most of you are probably already familiar with InfoWorld Electric, PC Week Online, TechWeb and NEWS.COM, the leaders in this space. But if you're like me, you can't take the time to browse through all of these sites every day. Not to worry: there are several e-mail news services out there that bring the news to you. The ones I've found to be the most useful are:
- ComputerWorld Daily: These guys catch a lot of news that the others just plain miss. I read more of their stories than any of the other e-mail publications. Did you know that the Department of Justice is investigating the merger of Award and Phoenix, the two largest manufacturers of system BIOS chips? I didn't even know they were merging... Subscribe to their e-mail delivery service at http://www.computerworld.com/inc/onlinesubs.html.
- Edupage: Edupage is a thrice-weekly newswire service provided by Educom, a non-profit institute whose goal is to further education through technology. I don't understand what that means, but they give good news in paragraph form (no links or expansions) that's easy-to-read and entertaining. Subscribe by sending mail to LISTSERV@LISTSERV.EDUCAUSE.EDU with "subscribe edupage your name" in the body.
- NewsLinx: NewsLinx is an aggregation service. They spend all day trolling through the various on-line news and commentary sites, picking up interesting stories. At the end of the day they e-mail you a list of headlines and links, allowing you to read whatever catches your eye. The best part about this service is that they include links to articles that you wouldn't normally see, since they scan through such a wide array of on-line sites. The only downside is that they market to the list some, which is exceptionally annoying. You can see what an HTML issue looks like (and subscribe) at http://www.newslinx.com/newslinx.html.
- Wired News: Wired has always had interesting news, and their e-mail alerts are no different. If you're interested in satellites (the kind that are going up, not coming down) or other "fringe technology" news, this is the one to get. Subscribe at http://www.wired.com/news/download/email.html.
News is nice, but it generally isn't enough by itself. Luckily for us (depending on who "us" is, I suppose), there are plenty of newsletters in this industry, providing everything from analysis to tips on how to run a good web site. While there are several for-fee newsletters out there, there are plenty of free ones that offer lots of value, too. Some of my favorites:
- Tasty Bits from the Technology Front: TBTF is actually a news service, but it also includes really good analysis and opinions, making it more of an op-ed than a news sheet. Last week's issue included a discussion on the e-DATA patent being declared non-applicable to Internet technologies, and also forwarded Schachter's Hypothesis, which states that "Given two unrelated technical terms, an Internet search engine will retrieve only resumes." Great stuff. To subscribe, send mail to firstname.lastname@example.org with "subscribe" in the body.
- AlertBox: If you're at all involved in the design, development or deployment of a web site, you must read this newsletter. Jakob Nielsen is the Web Usability Guru for Sun, and he shares his discoveries and insights on a bi-weekly basis. The latest issue showed how making the text on a Web page illegible was the best way to test a site's navigational services. Absolutely brilliant stuff (although the web site is, well, kinda' ugly). You can read it online or subscribe to a notification service by sending e-mail to email@example.com, with "subscribe firstname.lastname@example.org" in the body.
- Online Insider: Robert Seidman's Online Insider is a must-read for anybody who's interested in the various shenanigans of the different on-line services, including AOL, C|Net, and the carriers. He goes beyond just reprinting rumor, delving into the dollars and cents of the various operations as well as other aspects of the industry. Excellent commentary. His latest stuff can be read at http://www.onlineinsider.com/html/current_issue.html, and you can subscribe to e-mail delivery by reading the instructions at http://www.onlineinsider.com/html/subscribe.html.
- Web Informant: David Strom has a technology consulting firm in New York, and he also publishes a newsletter called Web Informant that provides good insight into the issues affecting Internet deployment and usage. You can subscribe to this by pointing your Web browser to http://www.strom.com/awards/pcn_jump.htm.
- DaveNet: Dave Winer is probably best known for his work on MORE, the old outlining app for the Mac. Now his company develops Frontier, an event-driven, database-centric Web-development platform that runs on the Mac and Windows. Dave likes to talk about his challenges as a developer, and this can make for some really interesting reading. His latest set of essays have been a series of clearly-reasoned thoughts on Microsoft's right to attack Netscape's browser business. Even if you don't always agree with what he says, his clarity helps your own thinking, as good argument always does. Subscribe by sending mail to email@example.com with "subscribe DaveNet-World" in the subject.
The Fun Stuff
You know what they say about all work and no play. Here are some of the more entertaining lists that I rely on for sanity-protection.
- Need To Know: As they proudly proclaim, "Need to Know is the world's most militant geekzine," which fairly well sums it up. Published in the UK, NTK is a mix of technology news and smart-ass commentary. They tell you what happened, and then they proceed to tear it apart. It's really, really funny. You can read the current issue (and subscribe for the e-mail delivery of such) at http://www.ntk.net.
- Eristocracy: Jon Callas is the CTO of PGP (now Network Associates), but he wasn't always like that. In another life, he runs a mailing list for "high-quality high-weirdness" items. Blurbs come down unexpectedly, covering topics that range from Viagra's Latin definition ("It's for somebody else."), to timely excerpts from RISKS. If I get mail from Jon, I stop whatever I'm doing and read it. You can subscribe to this by sending mail to firstname.lastname@example.org with "subscribe eristocracy" in the body of the message.
- Entropy Gradient Reversals: Many things have been said about Christopher Locke (a refugee from MCI, IBM, CMP and other white-collar institutions) and the newsletter he publishes under the RageBoy psuedonym. The best description I've ever read comes from a fellow reader: "Every time I start reading [EGR] I feel like I am being whirled around in the feculent death spiral of a 3-gallon toilet." Be warned: there is no format, other than a lack-of-format, and the prose can be tempestuous. But still, I find it a joy to read, especially after slaving through the drudge of X.500 versus LDAP. Read the screed at http://www.rageboy.com, and subscribe to the e-mail distribution by sending a message to email@example.com with "subscribe" in the body.
Although this is only a fraction of the stuff I get (and read) every week, these are the best of the bunch, I think.